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Sandy Maisel

Sandy Maisel

Posted May 8, 2009 | 11:34 AM (EST)

Democratic Governors Face Dilemma on Gay Marriage Bills


Two Democratic governors -- John Lynch of New Hampshire and John Baldacci of Maine -- face ethical dilemmas in the next week. In each state the legislature has passed a Gay Marriage bill. Each governor has opposed gay marriage in the past and must now decide how to respond to their legislature's actions.

Despite personal misgivings, they should each sign the law.

I don't know Governor Lynch, but I do know John Baldacci -- and I understand his dilemma. Baldacci grew up in a close knit Italian Catholic family in Bangor. Mama Baldacci's, the Italian restaurant run by the family, remains a landmark today -- and it represents the best in family tradition. Baldacci has not strayed far from his roots -- and those roots are embedded in family, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party.

Baldacci's campaigns and his governing have been centered in family and in those whom he known for a long time, those with whom he grew up, either literally or in politics.

And those values are challenged by gay marriage -- which is why his traditional view of family background says he is against gay marriage and against the pending legislation.

But Baldacci is also a Democrat whose party has led the effort to provide equal treatment of gays and straights when it comes to all aspects of the law, including marriage. The Democrats in the U.S. House have finally passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Matthew Shepard Act, named for the 21 year old victim of an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming; Senator Kennedy is leading an effort to push it through the Senate in short order. Certainly Governor Baldacci would not have opposed that were he still in Congress.

However, in a recent conversation with me, Baldacci seemed to be struggling, to find a solution on the issue of gay marriage with which everyone would be content -- including himself. He has explored various wordings with which he could be comfortable.

I imagine that Governor Lynch, an Irish Catholic, like Baldacci leading a state with many family traditionalists, is struggling in the same way.

But their solution seems to me to be evident -- presented to them in the legislation they are asked to sign.

The legislation does not say that Catholic priests must perform gay marriages. It does not say that the Catholic Church -- or any other church -- must recognize those marriages.

What it says is that the state will recognize those marriages, that the state will treat gays and lesbians as it does heterosexuals when it comes to laws regarding marriage.

States pass laws that differ from the practices of some organized religions all of the time. Some religions practice polygamy -- but our laws prohibit that. Some religions prohibit commerce on the Sabbath. Our laws permit it. We do not say that Orthodox Jews must ride on the Sabbath; we say that their prohibition does not restrict others. No law requires a doctor to perform an abortion. The law permits women to have abortions under certain circumstances.

The same should apply to marriage. Marriages can be sanctioned by an organized religion; they can be sanctioned by the state. Those are different. One gives a religious imprimatur; the other guarantees certain rights and protections. Many clergy will not perform inter-faith marriages. The state does not require that they do so. But if a couple finds a duly authorized official who will perform a civil marriage, they are married just the same -- and the civil rights and protections that go along with that apply.

Civil laws regarding marriage have evolved dramatically over the years. No state prohibits inter-faith marriages; no state prohibits inter-racial marriages, though many did for a long time.

I am convinced that within a few years no state will prohibit gay and lesbian marriages. The New England states have been leading this recognition of a changing social norm, first through judicial action and now through legislative action.

Governors Baldacci and Lynch must come to recognize that their oaths are to their states' constitutions, each of which guarantee equal application of the laws to all people. That is what a just society does.

And I am convinced, despite their personal reservations, these governors will overcome whatever personal or religiously inspired reservations they might have and lend their signatures to this next step in a clear march toward equality.

L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.